Russian artist Yuri Shakov's miniature art work (he painted them at normal card size) is a crystaline cathedral of 78 stained-glass plates. Mr. Shakov incorporated historical icons where symbolically referential. Example: The rotting skull on the Death card may be that of Ivan The Terrible, and as has been mentioned, Stalin is the Devil. The Two of Clubs is a Russian 'Boyer', an influential man, akin to a 'Burger', to which the word is probably related anyway. The Fool is a rag-tagged 'scomorhoki'. Mr. Shakov passed away during his illustration of The Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg, and so not all of the cards were actually painted by Yuri Shakov.
The accompanying book by Cynthia Giles is not at all childish, but rather sophisticated and scholarly. Some very interesting Russian history is presented, which sets the stage for some of the characters on which the cards are modelled. Especially useful are the "keys", or one-word meaning of the card, written underneath the card name. The court cards and the major arcana do not use these keys, however. Be mindful about nuances of meaning that vary from those traditionally given for the Ryder-Waite deck. The Death card, for instance, can in fact indicate physical death. But these things are always subject to context. The arrangement of the court cards together, breaking them out of the more orthodox habit of listing cards One through King, is a bit difficult, and impedes the ease of looking up cards. For example, if you want to look up the Page of Clubs, you don't start with the One of Clubs and flip through to the Ten of Clubs and then Page of Clubs; oh no, this would be too easy. You have to find the section marked "The Court: Card By Card".
The cards are startlingly beautiful, and capture an essence of psychic experience not unlike that revealed by hallucinogenic mushrooms, where a dark "outer space" background frames illuminated colors and strictly define textures. Mood is precisely captured. In some ways, these cards are cold, dark, isolated and lonely, in contrast to the Ryder-Waite, which can be warm, sunny, and in the company of friends or family. I've imagined that this is what existence may look like if our spirits roamed randomly throughout the spirit world, like the Vietnamese girl in the film Hair, who, after becoming a war casualty, was shown floating through space, aware and melancholy.
The integrity of the elemental significance is not well preserved, I think. Clubs and wands are traditionally assigned to the element of fire, but the clubs of the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg are simply war maces, as opposed to green staves (Ryder-Waite) or torches. Ryder-Waite uses plenty of hints to indicate the suit of wands as belonging to fire: red-haired knights, kings and pages; green buds issuing from staves (inner flame or life force). Still, each and every card has depth and character. Nothing about this deck is dreary, including rendered meanings.
I rarely open the box, and when I do it is mostly to admire the artwork, rather than conduct a metaphysical assay. Imagine the gilt leaded crystal in your fine china cabinet--that glass set you take out on maybe one dinner party a year, and you will have an idea of what I'm talking about. The backs of the cards are gilt bordered, with fine floral scrolling. You will not be disappointed.